Andreas Scholl: Holier-than-thou Chicago debut glorious

By Christian Kraus

In some of his more self-important moments, Sigmund Freud liked to think of psychoanalysis as having dealt the final blow to man’s perennial self-importance. Copernicus had terminated the lease of humanity’s dwelling-place at the center of the universe. Darwin had stroppily destroyed the carefully constructed hierarchy of God’s creation. And now Freud came along, worldhistorical parvenu, and decentered the human being even from its own mind by excavating the irrational foundations of Reason. It remains open to question whether we have sufficiently appreciated the profundity of these insights–but alternatively, we might wonder what it must have been like to live in downtown Cosmos, seizing food-for-spirit from the reaffirming thought of being guided on one’s ways by a benevolent, omnipotent, providential God. A world in which everything had its time and place, in which nature and society fused effortlessly into a rational whole suffused with meaning and significance. A world in which even society was ordered according to a divine plan, granting everybody his or her unique set of tasks. People should have had an excellent time, then–had it not been for the brute social facts of which all of the above were so many metaphysical justifications. Looking at 17th century Germany especially, we find a world in pure chaos, devastated by war and epidemics. Much closer to everyday experience than the firmness of God’s benevolent gaze were hordes of pillaging, looting, raping mercenaries switching allegiances with factions, princes, and religions more often than we supermoderns our significant others. After the dickens had danced for thirty years, much of the population had withered away, dark years in post-dark-age times. Out of catastrophe began to blossom the first flowers of German high literature, and foremost a highly formulaic kind of baroque poetry. With Andreas Gryphius in the lead, these poets began to reformulate the meaning of the cosmos sub specie vanitatis, from the standpoint of vanity, transience, death. Death as a harbor, resting-place for God’s torturted creatures, also promesse de bonheur, interstation to freedom from suffering.

Last Friday, German counter-tenor Andreas Scholl and harpsichordist Markus Märkl presented to us a selection of German baroque songs, centered around love, interrupted only by the obligatory incantation of wine’s liberating powers. Love here receives a great variety of treatments, ranging from its portrayal as the sole illuminating force in an otherwise darkly glittering universe (I do not seek the moon,/Dark is the light of the stars,/For she has turned away from me,/Asteris, my firmament.) to Al Bundy-inspired acknowledgements of its peculiar kind of temporality (The sweet coral mouth/Becomes misshapen,/The hands decay like snow,/And you grow old.). Also involved were Italian opera-style complaints about the inconstancy of women and an occasionally bizarre quasi-Aristotelian nothing-in-excess guide to the art of kissing (Not too loudly, not too softly,/In moderation lies the better part./Not too near, not too far,/The one troubles, the other dismays). And even more graphic accounts were featured after the intermission, when Scholl and Märkl added two beautiful solo cantatas by Georg Friedrich Händel.

But the great pleasure of the evening lay, of course, in the supreme beauty of Scholl’s voice. (And, and as a matter of fact, this was his Chicago debut, and hence another one of those epoch-making events for which we must thank Marna Seltzer, the director of this concert series.) It really does not matter much what the man sings. Be it Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, a Händel opera, or these down-to-earth baroque songs–to each he brings his uniquely clear and firm tone, his faultless taste and technical perfection. One wants to listen to him for hours more. Tragedy that such beauty must remain but a fleeting moment, barely retaining its arresting call in our otherwise diffused experience. Curiously though, it is what one might call the objective character of Scholl’s timbre that makes his chant so ever-fresh, so untainted by closer acquaintance. His voice is almost entirely devoid of any individuating subjectivity, of personal shades and traits that would distinguish him from his peers. Scholl stands above all of them. Unmistakeable nevertheless, his voice sounds like voice-in-itself, vox aeterna that speaks not from person to person but perhaps from somewhere else. Scholl’s sympathetic references, throughout the evening, to his upbringing and education, to his personal relation to these songs and cantatas, cannot deceive us–he is merely a carrier, fortunate one, possessed rather than possessor, as the Greeks would have put it. This, above all, is what makes his voice so suited for baroque music, music written before the romantics’ discovery of deep poetic subjectivity. The baroque poet speaks, but never only for himself, noting the misery of the sensible world as if implicated and detached all at once. And so does baroque music, most impressively Bach, preserving in its seemingly schematic and formulaic objectivation of human emotions the moment of universal significance that was lost when romanticism slippery-sloped into narcissism. Such music is cosmic solace, formulating beyond words that standpoint of redemption from which Adorno wished to see all things beheld. False solace yet where solace is false, then as now, in the wrong state of things. Necessary nonetheless?